The war over KPFA

Stupid management tricks at a Berkeley public radio station make people care about free speech there -- even if they don't listen to it anymore.

Published July 17, 1999 1:00PM (EDT)

It was Bastille Day, Berkeley style. On Wednesday, anniversary of the bourgeoisie's storming of the famous Paris jail, Berkeley's progressive bourgeoisie, all ages and races but heaviest on the middle-aged and white, stormed the headquarters of the Pacifica Radio flagship station KPFA. They were protesting the management decisions of Pacifica's national president, U.S. Civil Rights Commission head Mary Frances Berry, and executive director Lynn Chadwick.

Management's response was about as ill-considered and provocative as "Let them eat cake."

Now, angry protests outside KPFA are in their fourth day, more than 60 people have been arrested, new demonstrations are planned for the weekend and a lawsuit filed Friday in Alameda County upped the stakes in what has devolved into a naked power struggle for control of the Pacifica airwaves.

The ham-handed maneuvers of management -- which include firing popular staff members for discussing the controversy on the air (and dragging one of them out, screaming, mid-broadcast); the stationing of armed guards outside the station; and wanton, baseless race-baiting -- have gotten people who never listen to the left-wing Berkeley station convinced there's a political battle worth joining, here in the birthplace of the 1960s Free Speech Movement.

And while Berry and Chadwick continue to dig in their heels, there is growing evidence that the Pacifica national board, once united in support of the leadership, is beginning to fracture. Though none would speak on the record, several board members expressed strong disapproval of the decision to lock out KPFA workers, and suggested management changes may be needed. And in Alameda County Friday, local Pacifica affiliates filed a lawsuit claiming that recent moves by the Pacifica board to centralize power at the expense of the affiliates were illegal.

At the heart of the controversy is Berry, a nationally-known civil rights leader, who critics charge has ruled with an iron fist since assuming the presidency of the Pacifica National Board in 1997. Under Berry, Pacifica has continued its recent trend of centralizing power in Washington, taking it away from the local satellite stations and even entertaining ideas of selling the New York and Berkeley stations, with an estimated market value of $200 million.

The latest round of wrangling at KPFA began in April, when station manager Nicole Sawaya was fired for refusing to implement national Pacifica policies. Members of the national board say Berry and the executive committee have made clandestine decisions regarding personnel changes and the network's assets without getting the support of the entire board.

Several members of the national board, for instance, were appalled by the decision to place armed guards at the KPFA station in Berkeley. The move was defended as a response to the firing of a rifle-shot into the national headquarters in Berkeley earlier this year.

The guards ignited the most recent controversy Tuesday night, when programmer Dennis Bernstein, whose show was aptly named "Flashpoints," was literally dragged off the air for violating a gag rule against discussing internal strife during his program. He was playing a tape of a press conference Berry had held earlier in the day.

Bernstein could be heard on the air screaming "I'm afraid you're gonna hurt me, you're gonna shoot me!" during the broadcast, before station management was able to shut him down and start playing old archived programming. That night, 52 people were arrested outside the station for protesting Bernstein's removal. Since Tuesday night, the station has locked out all of its employees and is playing old taped programs on the air.

"This is like putting out a fire with gasoline. Some of us on the board were not in agreement with the policies," said one board member. "This would not be happening if they were not locking people out of the station. The board has consistently either done things which were not correct or in ways which were not well done."

Neither Berry nor Pacifica's national media spokesperson, Elan Fabbri, returned calls to Salon News for this story.

Berry is also being criticized for bringing race into a struggle that was already ugly enough. She has said publicly that her motive for reforming KPFA is to increase the diversity of KPFA's listeners and staff. While it is true that the three most recently fired staff are white men -- Bernstein, 30-year KPFA dean Larry Bensky and volunteer music programmer Robbie Osman -- those protesting their firing come in every color. The African-American program director and an African-American Morning Show host resigned earlier this year to protest recent management firings.

"What they wanted was to purge all the old lefties and get in some music shows and some mainstream, liberal shit," said J. Imani, a member of the local KPFA advisory board, who is African-American. "A week after Nicole was hired, they told her who to fire, and she wouldn't go for it. She took a stand against politically white-washing KPFA."

"Her manipulation of the race issue in this is an example of how unsuitable she is to run this organization," says Larry Bensky. "She's a megalomaniac who's uninterested in community-controlled radio stations."

Berry may be right to suggest that the audience of the Berkeley station is whiter than the region is. That's public radio's audience. But at KPFA, it's not for any lack of programming about minority issues. KPFA could instantly gain a more diverse audience by converting its format to 94.1 Jams, of course. But Berry's opponents say race is only one benchmark for diversity, and that losing KPFA's unique political voice -- eccentric and oppositional as it may be -- would lead to a different kind of homogeneity, one that's equally disturbing.

Those who've followed Pacifica Radio in the last 15 years can be forgiven for thinking they've read this story before. The Pacifica network and its five big-city member stations have been power-struggling for years.

KPFA, the Pacifica flagship station, was founded in 1946 by Lewis Hill. It quickly emerged as a bastion of free speech (perhaps, now, ironically), voicing openly leftist views at the height of the McCarthy era. In the early 1960s, the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and the FBI investigated Pacifica programming for "subversion," citing the broadcasts of Bertolt Brecht, W.E.B. DuBois and others as evidence.

The Pacifica Foundation was established later to support the Berkeley station, and spread its model to other cities. But as the central administration grew, and tried to exert control over its member stations, there have been many fights. A long roster of station managers as well as central Pacifica administrators have come and gone trying to impose order on the unruly member stations, especially KPFA. They have mostly failed.

To be fair to Pacifica management, KPFA's byzantine organizational structure and union rules have made even needed change difficult. Longtime broadcasters have treated certain program hours as their personal fiefdoms, and cried free-speech whenever anyone challenged their rights to the airwaves. The current conflict has made allies of those who have, in other Pacifica battles, been enemies. Larry Bensky, for instance, has been on the side of improving standards and professionalism in past battles.

KPFA's programming is wildly uneven. The station has done some top-notch reporting, including its coverage of the civil rights movement and Larry Bensky's trademark gavel-to-gavel hosting of political conventions, the Iran-Contra investigation, and this year's impeachment hearings and trial. Most recently, just last year Dennis Bernstein broke news about Rep. Henry Hyde's little-known role in the savings and loan scandal.

But with the erosion of the American left as a viable political force, Pacifica has also become an island of lefty eccentricity, broadcasting commentaries from death-row inmate Mumia Abu-Jamal and devoting overmuch airtime to conspiracy theories about ties between the CIA, the Contras in Nicaragua and crack cocaine in the United States that its reporters were never able to prove.

In its 50 years, the station and the Pacifica national network has been a thorn in the side of American conservatives. But as is typical with leftist organizations, Pacifica has done to itself what years of antagonism from the right could never accomplish. The station is now embroiled in a civil war, with no immediate end in sight.

If there is a renegade voice on the Pacifica board, it is that of Bay Area resident Pete Bramson. Bramson made a motion at the last board meeting for a vote of no confidence in Berry and Chadwick. The motion did not even receive a second, and died. But since then, further signs of fracture have emerged within the board. In a recent vote to re-elect treasurer June Makela, only six members of the 11-member board supported her.

When several members of the board were subsequently asked if Bramson's motion would suffer the same fate if it were reintroduced, all of them hemmed and hawed and refused to comment, even on background. Makela's one-vote victory and Bramson's defiant motion are far cries from the standard progressive insistence on chirpy consensus.

"It shows a tremendous division that's taking place within the board," said one member. "This kind of dissent would have been unheard of even a year ago."

But they also highlight Pacifica as an organization in turmoil. Whether that turmoil will ultimately lead to the resignation of Berry and/or Chadwick is still far from certain. But at least one board member said it would be hard to envision any other outcome.

"I am not an opponent of Mary. I think she really does mean well. But she is basically an authoritarian in her views of how institutions should run," said one board member. "She could survive this, but my sense is that she'll ultimately step down. Lynn, just in the way she is built, does not allow for group process. She's an autocrat to the core, and a bulldog. I think Mary will leave before Lynn will."

Calls for Berry and Chadwick's resignations erupted through the progressive community today, as fallout from the week's events continues. In a press release issued today, the New York-based group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) wrote, "Over the years, FAIR had been sympathetic to national board efforts to professionalize the network and give it a stronger national identity ... [but now] FAIR believes that the clearest path out of the crisis, the clearest path toward restoring Pacifica's credibility as an independent journalistic force, is for the leadership of the national board and the executive director to resign."

On some levels, the Pacifica squabble seems nothing more than an esoteric lefty-media tragicomedy. The recent events at Pacifica give credence to every stereotype its enemies have of the left -- they're autocratic, willing to advocate free speech only if self-criticism is not involved, and can only communicate with each other at high decibel levels, opting for lockouts and street marches instead of mediation.

But after a terrible week of public relations, it appears that Chadwick and the Pacifica leadership are caving to some of the demands of the local affiliates. While the station doors remain locked, Chadwick has agreed to accept a federal mediator, selected by the employees' union, after resisting binding arbitration for weeks.

The heat was also turned up by the California State Assembly, whose Bay Area members reacted with anger at news of the local lockout. Berkeley Assemblywoman Dion Aroner has called for a legislative hearing which may ultimately lead to the stripping of KPFA's tax-exempt status if a resolution is not reached.

"The Pacifica Board is clearly not getting the message," said Aroner spokesman Hans Hemann. "They have to let the employees back in."

If the squabble isn't settled by Monday -- and there are no indications it will be -- folksinger Joan Baez is expected to sing at a rally in support of locked-out KPFA workers.

By Anthony York

Anthony York is Salon's Washington correspondent.

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